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Inside the Armani/Silos Museum

Inside the Armani/Silos Museum

Inside Armani Silos Milan Title Image

I recently visited the Armani/Silos, the museum of fashion designer Giorgio Armani. I expected the “stereotype” Armani: the clean lines and shapes, the elegant and classic garment. But I was positively surprised to learn how big the influence of travelling and other cultures was on Armani’s many unexpected and colourful designs. Travel with me from Milan around the world, I am discussing selected outfits from the permanent exhibition at the Armani/Silos and explain which countries or regions may have inspired Giorgio Armani during the design process. As you will see, it is often a mix of many sources of inspiration and probably a more “fantastical” approach.

You can also watch my video here:

What Are the Armani/Silos and What Is There to See?

Armani/Silos is an art space or museum created by designer Giorgio Armani. According to the information provided at the Armani/Silos Giorgio Armani “shows a glimpse of his world”[1] where his work enters a dialogue with other disciplines such as photography, architecture, film and design. The Silos were built in 1950 to store cereals. The 4,500 sqm museum stretches over four floors with temporary and permanent exhibitions as well as a digital archive. 

Inside Armani Silos Milan Temporary Exhibition Aldo Fallai
The ground floor of the Armani/Silos is dedicated to temporary exhibitions.

During my visit in March 2024, the temporary exhibition on the first two floors was showcasing photographic works of Aldo Fallai, a graphic designer with a passion for photography who closely collaborated with Armani for decades. This temporary exhibition was on the first two floors. The upper two floors are dedicated to the permanent exhibition about selected designs which is divided into two parts “Voyage” (about travel as a source of inspiration) and “Glamour” (Armani’s eveningwear). This article mainly focuses on the “Voyage”-aspect, as it will elaborate how travelling and foreign countries and cultures influenced the designer’s work. Armani is most often associated with clear and elegant designs interpreting the masculine for the feminine. This stems from the fact that Armani since the start of his business has designed for the empowered woman. Women had become more and more empowered during the 1970s (when he started his business) and he also shaped the designs for the “Yuppies” in the 1980s. But many of the designs displayed at the Armani/Silos a very different facet of this designer, far removed from the stereotype: playful and colourful designs with interesting shapes and cuts.

“I like to fantasise. Looking elsewhere and travelling with the mind is an intense and fulfilling way of reinventing what I create in the here and now; it is a way of dreaming with my feet on the ground.”[2] 

Giorgio Armani

This quote may remind you about what Karl Lagerfeld’s approach to travelling – he actually did not like it and preferred to “travel in his mind”. (You can read more in the article about Karl Lagerfeld’s “Orientalism”.) Moreover, also Yves Saint Laurent applied a similar approach.[3] 

This article will take you on a trip around the world; to some countries which inspired Giorgio Armani using selected outfits exhibited at the Armani/Silos. (Note: Terms or countries in this article are sometimes used interchangeably. For example, the article will focus on India, but many of the garments, techniques or traditions may be common in other countries, such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkey or Iran. If you would like to add anything about specific garments or countries, please leave a comment in the section below.) 

Let’s fasten your seatbelts, we are taking off now to our first destination.

Destination 1: France

Inside Armani Silos Milan Ribbon Dress Matisse
Mattisse-inspired ribbon dresses from the Fall/Winter 1993/94 collection.

This bustier dress from the Fall/Winter 1993/94 collection was made from ribbons and the colour-palette was “stolen from Matisse’s palette”[4]. This is not the only Matisse-inspired look, another example is an intricately embroidered pant suit. Armani also explained that he wanted to show that Fall/Winter collections do not necessarily have to be in dark or muted colours. He used brighter or lighter colours as “the seasons are not as definitive as they once were”. This approach may be another reference to the French Impressionists who saw light very differently than their predecessors.[5]

Inside Armani Silos Milan Poiret Inspired Ensemble
Ballets Russes-inspired ensemble from Spring/Summer 1990.

This ensemble from Spring/Summer 1990 involves a printed chiffon blouse, crinoline circle skirt, and tulle and silk trousers and may not be directly related to France but it refers to something quite important in the first half of the 20th century in Paris: the Ballets Russes, a famous ballet famous in the first half of the 20th century and a major source of inspiration for designers and artists at the time. Armani was inspired by the costumes designed by Léon Bakst for the ballet in 1911. While Bakst was not the only costume designer for this famous ballet, he probably is one of the most celebrated thanks to his colourful designs. Furthermore, he also referenced the French designer Paul Poiret who was heavily influenced by the “Orient” with ensembles reminiscent of the Persian Djellaba Princes, exotic weaved embroideries and vibrant colours.[6]

Destination 2: China

One of most obvious references to China was Armani’s Spring/Summer 2005 ready-to-wear collection, called “Shocking”. This name reveals the second source of inspiration – Armani mixed the aesthetics of French designer Elsa Schiaparelli, for example turban-like hats or bug brooches, with Chinoiserie elements. “Shocking” is a term which is associated with Schiaparelli, her designs and also her signature colour “shocking pink”.[7]

Inside Armani Silos Milan Dress Chinese Painting
Chinese “Bird-and-Flower Painting”-inspired dress (Spring/Summer 2005).

The dress from the Spring/Summer 2005 collection represents elements of typical floral Chinese painting with birds. In Chinese art, there is even a term for these type of paintings called“Bird-and-Flower Painting” (花鸟画, Huaniaohua). At the Armani/Silos, there was another dress from the same collection with Chinese characters in a calligraphy-style on display. Furthermore, Armani used the same pattern for a jacket and he played with calligraphy in black and red in further designs (a top and a dress) of that same collection. Furthermore, he incorporated tops with the cuts of Chinese garments; needless to say, there were stand-up-collar jackets. Armani not only worked with calligraphy, he paid tribute to another artform: porcelain; using the typical white and blue colour schemes. Chinese elements were also used for accessories such as necklaces. And this collection reflects an overall fashion trend of the time: As mentioned in the previous article about fashion trends around the Year 2000, China was a big source of inspiration for designers at the time. Armani was not the only one – also Gaultier and Cavalli sent Chinese-inspired designs on the runway.[8]

Inside Armani Silos Milan Dress Chinese Characters
In his Spring/Summer 2005 collection, Armani included various designs with Chinese characters or calligraphy-elements.

Armani was inspired by China in earlier collections as well and up until today, the designer keeps working with Chinese elements. In his Spring/Summer 1993 collection there are nods to Chinese calligraphy, painting and even lacquer furniture. The latter was a popular export product particularly from China and Japan. A closer look at the patterns reveals the typical genre scenes on these pieces of furniture, very often they depicted daily life of the upper class or at the Imperial Court. Of course, there are the popular flowers and if you pay close attention, the streaks indicate the waves of the water, which is also very characteristic of this art form. The flowers were also taken up in an exhibited jacket and black and white gowns from the Fall/Winter 1995/96 and the Spring/Summer 1997 collection.[9] 

Inside Armani Silos Milan Details Lacquer Furniture
Embroidery details referencing Chinese painting and genre scenes/floral motifs on lacquer furniture.

For his Fall/Winter 1995/96 collection, Armani created a pattern featuring the lotus flower which is a very popular symbol in Chinese art but also in Asian Art overall. In Chinese art, the lotus (莲花, liánhuā) has a strong link to Buddhism: the fruit, stem and blossom represent the past, presence and future. Moreover, this beautiful and fragant flower is admired as it grows out of the mud (dirt). This symbolises that people can have a good heart despite a bad environment. Therefore, the louts is linked to purity. Furthermore, the lotus symbolises modesty, love and marriage. The latter is due to the fact that there are homophones in the Chinese language. This means that one word or character sounds like another word. In this case 莲 (lián; the first part of 莲花, liánhuā) sounds like 连 (lián) which means “to connect” but it also sounds similar to 恋 (liàn), “love”.[10] The lotus is not only an important flower in China but also other countries such as India. The exhibition at the Armani/Silos illustrated that in many cases, we cannot point at one single country as the source of the designer’s inspiration. But given his focus on Chinese-inspired designs in that Fall/Winter 1995/96 collection, it can be assumed that this pattern is a reference to China.

Inside Armani Silos Milan Pants Lotus Flower Detail
Lotus flower details on silk trousers (Fall/Winter 1995/96).

As mentioned previously, China has been a major source of inspiration and elements (such as silk pyjamas or accessories) can be found in many other collections. In 2006/07 Armani designed garments with a Ginko pattern – a tree which is associated with many Asian countries.

Destination 3: Japan

Inside Armani Silos Milan Japanese Inspired Designs
The o-yoroi armour of the Japanese samurai inspired some of Armani’s designs.

A black velvet tunic and velvet trousers, a black dress with red shoulder pads and a blue ensemble from the Fall/Winter 1981/82 collection were inspired by Japan, in particular by the o-yoroi armour of the samurai. This reflected an overall interest in Japan and fashion trend at the time – clear lines and shapes were en vogue, especially for professional attire. Armani, the “king” of clean and elegant designs paid tribute to Japanese clothing traditions.[11] As Armani frequently blurred the lines between menswear and womenswear, he also incorporated Japanese elements in his designs for men, such as a jacket from 1999. (Needless to say, it could also very well be Chinese-inspired as well.) 

Inside Armani Silos MilanArt Deco Inspired Dress
Art Déco-inpsired dress (Spring/Summer 1999).

When it comes to Japan, it is important to discuss Art Déco elements in Armani’s designsas well. The French Art Déco and also the Austrian Jugendstil were heavily influenced by Japan. The country had inspired many artists for centuries but after the Paris Expo in 1867 there was yet another big wave of this trend. The geometric lines, flower elements, references to waves are characteristics which the Art Déco and Jugendstil “learned” from Japanese art. In the case of Armani, they are yet another confirmation that Armani not only travelled in his mind but also mixed different countries, cultures and time periods.

Destination 4: India 

From 1989 onwards, Giorgio Armani was very clearly influenced by India and there are many examples in the exhibition. As mentioned in the introduction, some of the following elements are not exclusive to India, but they are discussed in the context of India to keep this article simple.

Inside Armani Silos Milan Boteh Pattern Dress
Golden dress with Boteh-pattern (Fall/Winter 1989/90).

The first example is a beautiful gold gown from 1989/90 with sheer layer on top, revealing a “Boteh”-pattern underneath. There was also a crop top which looks like the typical tops paired with a lehenga skirts – it is heavily embroidered with the Boteh pattern. This pattern originated in Persia and travelled across the region to India. Today, it is commonly known as “Paisley”, as it was later appropriated in Europe. The Scottish town Paisley was a major hub for cashmere manufacturing and also included this pattern in their products. The pants paired with this embroidered top may be a nod to the Indian dhoti pants.

Inside Armani Silos Milan Boteh Pattern Ivory Dress
Dresses reminiscent of Indian bridal attire (Boteh-pattern on the right).

At the top floor, there were three gowns on display which immediately evoked the image of Indian bridal couture. Even though many people outside of India, associate crop tops with traditional Indian outfits, it is quite popular again to cover the belly and wear a full dress for formal functions and weddings. Furthermore, white and ivory have become more popular with Indian brides even though the “typical” bridal colours are bright (such as red). (It is a bit of a shame, because I prefer the Indian bridalwear and the vibrant colours over the white options we wear in the West.) Armani also used the boteh-pattern which I mentioned previously. 

Inside Armani Silos Milan Poiret Inspired Ensemble
This crop top may also have been inspired by the French couturier Paul Poiret.

Another shorter crop top from the Spring/Summer 1990 collection also looks “oriental-inspired”. While this term is not appropriate anymore today, it refers to Armani’s source of inspiration. Similar to the design mentioned when we “travelled” to Paris, he may have been inspired yet again by Paul Poiret who frequently used Persian elements. At the beginning of the 20th century, the Middle East and Asia were still being referred to as “Orient”. This terminology is discussed in more detail in the articles about Karl Lagerfeld’s “Orientalism”.

Inside Armani Silos Milan Indian Sari Inspired Colourful Ensembles
Colourful ensembles with sari-elements (Spring/Summer 1993).

The previously discussed Spring/Summer collection 1993 also involved quite a few Indian-inspired garments with draping like saris or dhoti pants also feature floral motifs arranged similar to the borders of saris. Furthermore, the bright and fun colours could reflect India as well. There are tropical plants which may represent the Southern Indian region of Kerala, but maybe we are taking the interpretation too far now – it could be another example of Armani’s mix of cultures. A similar brown ensemble with a sleeveless jacket from the same collection could also be a reference to India, Pakistan or also Afghanistan.

Inside Armani Silos Milan Waistcoats with Mughal Architecture Embroidery
Waistcoats with geometric embroidery which may be inspired by Mughal architecture.

There were two waistcoats on display which are among the most interesting examples. Firstly, they were paired with lace skirts which resulted in an interesting material mix. Secondly, the geometric patterns, in particular the one of the black version, may reference the geometric architecture of the gardens in the Mughal palaces. (Like an example of the Saffron Garden at the Amber Fort in Jaipur.)

Inside Armani Silos Milan Saffron Garden at the Amber Fort near Jaipur India
Architectural Elements at the Saffron Garden at the Amber Fort in Jaipur, India.

Conclusion

We have landed back in Milan and this trip around the world was another example of a designer being inspired by travel and foreign countries and cultures. Similar to other designers, Giorgio Armani tends to mix them – it is often difficult to just see the influence of just one particular country in his designs. Furthermore, Armani does not aim at exact copies of local garments or techniques but rather at a fantastical version he created in his mind. The Armani/Silos in Milan are a great place to dive deeper into Armani’s work and his sources of inspiration.


Footnotes

[1] Armani/Silos Exhibition Brochure 2024.

[2] Information provided at the Armani/Silos 2024.

[3] Pink Lookbook Articles: Karl Lagerfeld’s Orientalism & Yves Saint Laurent’s India.

[4] Information provided at the Armani/Silos 2024.

[5] ibid.

[6] Information provided at the Armani/Silos 2024 & Met Museum 2024.

[7] Information provided at the Armani/Silos 2024 & Vogue 2024.

[8] ibid.

[9] Elisabeth Steiger 2023, p. 55.

[10] ibid.

[11] Information provided at the Armani/Silos 2024.


Sources

Armani/Silos Exhibition Brochure, available at the museum, 2024.

Information provided at the Armani/Silos, 2024.

Elisabeth Steiger, Die fernöstliche Sammelleidenschaft Maria Theresias. Die Lackpaneele in den Chinesischen Kabinetten von Schloss Schönbrunn, Vienna, 2023.

The Met, Performance as Escape: Léon Bakst and the Ballets Russes, Femke Speelberg, June 30, 2017, last accessed on 19 April 2024.

The Pink Lookbook Articles: Karl Lagerfeld’s Orientalism & Yves Saint Laurent’s India.

Vogue, Fashion Shows, Spring 2005 Ready-to-Wear, Giorgio Armani, last accessed on 19 April 2024.

Picture Sources (Including Title Image)

Unless indicated otherwise, the pictures were taken by the author at the Armani/Silos in 2024. 


Disclaimer

This article is based on the personal, views, experiences and research of Liz Steiger, no fees were received by the organisations and people mentioned above. All information as of the date of publishing/updating.


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